Historical Seasons > Past Symposiums

Symposium 96 - The Schubert Octet

6 February 2011

on Period Instruments


  • Octet in F Major, D. 803 (1824)

    Adagio – Allegro – Più allegro 
    Allegro vivace – Trio – Allegro vivace

    Andante – variations. Un poco più mosso – Più lento
    Menuetto: Allegretto – Trio – Menuetto – Coda
    Andante molto – Allegro – Andante molto – Allegro molto


    Franz Schubert


PROGRAM NOTE for the Schubert Octet by Mark Steinberg

    The ability to experience being someone else, to live inside someone else’s skin or take on another’s abilities, seems to be a universal fantasy. Rituals featuring masks and costumes appear in myriad cultures. Developing empathy—seeing through someone else’s eyes—is a cornerstone of many views of ethics. It can be a way of widening our perspective, of trying things out that are otherwise too dangerous to pursue, of enjoying a vacation from ourselves. And, of course, the “other” is so often seen as a creature with fewer cares, greater ability, more smiled upon by Fortune. Thomas Mann in the novella “Tonio Kröger” creates a character who is every bit the artist. Surrounded by those he considers beautiful, self-assured and at peace, Tonio is everything they are not. Mann’s initial description of Hans, the first of the beautiful people Tonio encounters, reads: “ He was uncommonly handsome and well built, broad in the shoulders and narrow in the hips, with keen, far-apart, steel-blue eyes.” Tonio, on the other hand, has “a brunette face with the finely chiseled features of the south; the dark eyes, with delicate shadows and too heavy lids, [he] looked dreamily and a little timorously on the world.”


    No doubt Franz Schubert saw himself as a Tonio Kröger, unhappy, out of place in the world, and very much composing in the shadow of that great giant, Beethoven. Schubert was a poet for the downtrodden, those who would not know peace in this world but who cultivated visions of the beyond. His music stood for those who live in the glow of memories of an unredeemable idyllic past, or in recognition of a paradise beyond reach. Schubert never shied away from depicting the power and terror of fate, but he was not a conquerer, like Beethoven. If there exists reconciliation with fate in Schubert’s music it tends toward acceptance rather than subjugation.


    So encountering a large scale work such as the Octet, D803, which offers so much that is cheerful, optimistic and bright may be surprising at first. Schubert seems to have stepped out of the shadows, to have cast aside his doubt and fascination with ambiguity. In fact the composer we encounter here is in costume, playing a role. The genesis of the great Octet is in a commission from the clarinetist Ferdinand Troyer, who requested a companion piece to the hugely popular Septet of Beethoven. Schubert accepted the commission, adding another violin to Beethoven’s instrumentation. The Beethoven work is almost relentlessly sunny and untroubled and is relatively undemanding for the listener. Schubert modeled his work on Beethoven’s in many particulars. He seems to have taken delight in the chance to try on the self-assured buoyancy of the earlier work, and produced a divertimento-like piece replete with charm and light. The relatively amiable, engaging character of the Octet is not unlike that of its predecessor, but Schubert has created a far richer, subtler and greater piece than the one on which it is modeled. The mimicry of a person in costume only delights up to a point; beyond that, what fascinates is the way the person’s true character filters through, the small ways in which it betrays itself.


    One of the most important ways this happens in the Octet is through the framing of the outer movements. Beethoven’s first movement begins with a slow introduction that has the feel of an operatic overture in setting forth the mood of what is to come. Schubert’s slow introduction is far more uncertain. Where Beethoven gives us a richly scored E-flat major chord, Schubert chooses to begin with a single pitch, neither major nor minor: suspended, elusive. In doing so he flings open a window on a sky through which dreams can drift, as if to begin his story with “long, long ago.” By the time we find ourselves in the main part of the movement we understand it as a discovered fairy tale. Heroics and gallantry abound, but we feel it as an escape more than a reality. And here, as throughout the piece, the lyricism and Viennese lilt that are so much a part of Schubert’s language give him away over and over. He may be trying on Beethoven’s swagger, but his accent betrays him. 


    The framing of the last movement is even more extraordinary, emerging from a chthonic rumble; it provokes a cri de coeur that dissolves in echo. As so often in Schubert, this is turned away from rather than resolved. Again, this gives an alternate reality feeling to the main part of the movement, in which the gypsy spirit of dancing in the face of adversity is suggested by great virtuosity and the abundance of spondaic rhythms. This  spirit, however, gets shattered by the reappearance of the rumbling introduction. In the final analysis this disturbance is too close to the end of the movement to be forgotten or shaken off. All the sprites in this piece cast shadows. 


    And in addition to shadows there are visions inside visions, levels of reality. The piece features numerous modulations to third-related keys which suggest enchanted revelations, dreams within dreams, further temporal obfuscation. These are some of the most touching moments in the piece, offering a glimpse into a beauty beyond even the beauty we had allowed ourselves to imagine. 


    In her book Nine Gates, poet Jane Hirshfield discusses Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, “Gift:”


      A day so happy.

      Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.

      Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.

      There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.

      I knew no one worth my envying him.

      Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.

      To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.

      In my body I felt no pain.

      When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.


    She notes that despite the purity of the joy captured here, it is held in suspension by forces that give it a context of greater awareness and wisdom. The images celebrated are particularly ephemeral: fog, hummingbirds. And the happiness described is cast as the negation of unhappy things, a reprieve. And just so does Schubert get a reprieve by donning Beethoven’s mantle. Yet his tenderness, his understanding, his vulnerability show through and lend a gentle humanity to the joy in the piece, a joy even more touching for having been borrowed.


    - Mark Steinberg